Thursday, December 19, 2013

On Shunning

This morning, it suddenly struck me that shunning seems to play a very large (too large) and seemingly increasing role in modern disagreement. No, I'm not talking about garden variety disagreement and/or criticism, even the vociferous kind; for an example of heated disagreement, see RI's Catholic Bishop's criticism of Nelson Mandela's stance on abortion, and the ensuing uproar.  For an example of shunning, see Bishop Tobin's refusal to sit with interfaith leaders who approve of civil same-sex marriage. Instead of merely disagreeing, shunning and posturing seem to be on the rise.

Just recently, Swarthmore Hillel entered the fray with Hillel International, launching the Open Hillel movement in protest against Hillel's policy proscribing speakers in favor of boycott or divestment from Israel; Hillel's policy, rightly or wrongly, had been to shun such speakers.  Presumably, this was a method of laying down the law and constructing firm lines on the limits of acceptable debate.  On the question of divestment, it's abundantly clear that Hillel is in the right; as to whether it's prudent to forbid such speakers from speaking at Hillel, I'm not sure.

In other headlines, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's eloquent Prime Minister, failed to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.  Though the official reason given related to the cost and expense of attending, it's fairly clear that Netanyahu's distaste for Mandela's support of the Palestinians and criticism of Israel must actually have been the decisive factor.

At the installation for the new President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a new Rabbinic seminary devoted to modern Orthodoxy, there was an over-discussed and scandalized panel involving Rabbis of multiple Jewish denominations.  Having this kind of panel prompted immediate condemnations, with many boycotting the installation.  Oh, the topic that prompted a public storm - "Training New Rabbis for a New Generation."

It doesn't come close to stopping there.  In a recent high profile move, the American Studies Association endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.  In response, many are suggesting a counter "boycott of the boycotters" through new legislation in the knesset, Israel's legislative body.  Last year, I myself even briefly joined into the craze, publishing my reasons for boycotting a dinner sponsored by RIETS, my own esteemed and beloved rabbinic seminary.

So what are we to make of all of the shunning?  Clearly, each of us has lines of support whereby even associating with a particular event, person, institution, whatever it might be, compromises our integrity and makes us complicit in a way which we naturally abhor.  In some ways, it is a healthy sign of conscience, integrity, and an affirmation that life is valuable, important, and yes, worth the fight.

On the other hand, the inability and unwillingness to hear or discuss positions with which we strongly disagree is troubling.  For one, it fits into a larger trend of polarization.  For a plethora of demographic, psychological, technological, and other reasons, humans increasingly tend to read, listen to, and speak with those who espouse like-minded thinking.  This creates an affirmation bias, distorts our understanding of the range and depth of views held, and stifles our own growth.  In my own life, I can recall many occasions where my thinking has gradually evolved, often due to being challenged by those with a different perspective. Ultimately, willing to listen, think, entertain, and even disagree represents a certain humility of the individual. It is in this spirit that our sages declared: Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not be sure of yourself until the day of your death (Pirkei Avot, 2:5).

At its core, shunning represents a declaration of moral certitude (sometimes necessary and required).  In normal civil discourse, it is understood that well-intentioned intelligent individuals may, in a good faith, come to different conclusions.  We respect and honor each person's right to think, reason, and act, embodying the best of the Divine image in man.  Civil disagreement is predicated on individuals truly valuing each other's autonomy and individuality.  Shunning represents a temporary change in the rules, and is predicated not on respect but a paternalistic assertion of relative moral certitude.

Of course, we're all going to have different red-lines, and disagree as to which particular situations require taking a stronger stand.  Still, it seems that on the whole, it's better to err on the side of civil discourse, and act with a strong preference to shun shunning.      


Friday, December 6, 2013

Thanksgivukkah: Sukkot in December

This is a reprint of a post I wrote for the 401j blog, the new Jewish collaborative of Jews in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s in Rhode Island.

Most years, Hanukkah clearly takes second place to Christmas in the annual “My Winter Holiday Is Better than Yours” competition. This year the tides seem to be turning, if only just this once, due exclusively to the coincidental concurrence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. While Jews across the country are certain to be celebrating Thankgivukkah with their menurkeys and cranberry jelly doughnuts, I’m also fairly certain that most non-Jews will be celebrating Thanksgivukkah instead of Thanksgiving this year as well. It turns out that combining a religious winter holiday with a cherished national holiday (complete with school breaks, vacation, football, and the biggest sales of the year) is the perfect way to increase the market and help a holiday gain exposure.
Even Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist commenting on the ironic calendric coincidence. As he satirically noted during a recent show, “Hanukkah celebrates the struggle of an oppressed people’s fight against invading conquerors, while Thanksgiving is about our healthy nurturing relationship with the Indians.”  I’m sure Colbert is well aware that satire was actually one of the hallmarks of Hellenistic culture.
All of this got me thinking – what if there’s more to Thanksgivukkah than aggressive Jewish marketing with catchy holiday hybrids. Perhaps, just maybe, Colbert was on to something when he suggested that the stories are in fact polar opposites, and that the pilgrims may as well have starred as Antiochus and the Syrian Greeks, while the Native Americans were in fact the indigenous oppressed religious and ethnic minority.
Pondering all of this led me to try and shed my western/democratic tinted reading glasses (to some extent, anyway) and consider the story again anew. One of the striking features of the extra-biblical Book of Maccabees is that there is absolutely no mention of Hanukkah’s most popular story, the miracle of a single cruse of oil lasting for eight days. There are lengthy descriptions of Hasmonean revolt, the battles, the decrees, the rededication, seemingly everything . . . but Hanukkah’s most popular miracle is mysteriously and unmistakably absent.
If not for the oil, why, pray tell, did the Maccabees celebrate for eight days? The Book of Maccabees offers a most surprising suggestion. That year, the Jews had missed the opportunity to celebrate Sukkot, the eight day harvest festival, as the sacrificial altar and Temple had not yet been purified from foreign Hellenist control. The 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev happened to be the third anniversary of the Hellenist takeover of the Temple; this included the obviously offensive sacrifice of pigs and the construction of a statute of Zeus in the holiest chamber of the Temple. The Maccabees decided to rededicate the Temple exactly three years to the date after control had been lost. But what should the rededication ceremony look like?
When Moses had initially presided over the construction of the mishkan, a portable worship center designed for the desert, the initiation ceremony lasted eight days.  When King Solomon first dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, the ceremony lasted eight days and coincided with the celebration of Sukkot (1 Kings 8:66).  Naturally drawing from these earlier models, the Maccabees also intuited that an eight day celebration was in order.
Sukkot has two essential themes.  On the one hand, it is an agricultural harvest festival, a chance to thank God for the food and fruits of the land.  On the other, it is an existential holiday representing God’s presence and protection in the history and lives of the Jewish people. It is for this reason that King Solomon originally chose to dedicate the first Temple on Sukkot, as the point of the building was to serve as a tangible symbol of God’s presence in daily life.
Sukkot was the perfect model for the Maccabee’s celebration of Hanukkah. They had missed Thanksgiving (i.e. Sukkot), and were craving the opportunity to formally express deep gratitude for the gifts they had been blessed with during those most trying war-filled years. At the same time, the themes of Sukkot meshed well with the rededication of a Temple whose presence was meant as a conduit for God’s holy presence in our lives. Therefore, the first Hanukkah was actually Thanksgivukkah, the celebration of Chanukah and Sukkot – the Book of Maccabees tells us that they celebrated exactly as they were accustomed to do on Sukkot.
I’ve lived in Providence for a little more than two years now, and as I reflect on what I’m grateful for this Thanksgivukkah (I really do dislike the term), the people in my life are at the top of the list. Providence embodies a creative and collaborative energy amongst genuinely interesting and interested individuals.  There is an abundance of talent and diversity, but most importantly, genuineness. It’s one of the best “hidden” secrets in the country.  Like the Maccabees during this same season so many years ago, we’re both free yet obliged to create our own rituals of gratitude and construction during this time of transition and rededication. I am truly excited that, working together, we’ll build the edifices that enable us to enhance and sustain community, forming lasting relationships engaged in meaningful endeavors together. I can’t wait to see the variety of lights we can add together; I’m so deeply thankful for that invisible miraculous Spirit gently guiding us forward and the hard work of so many investing wisely, even aggressively, in a bright future.